Kevin Durant wanted to squash any remaining hope the Clippers had left. So, with two minutes left in Game 4 and the Warriors up 11, he took on the responsibility of guarding Lou Williams for one possession. It took just a few seconds for Durant to transform Williams from a pick-and-roll wizard into a helpless underling way out of his weight class. Durant’s length blocked off any passing lanes and Williams threw it away. On the other end, Steph Curry found Durant at the top of the 3-point arc where Durant pulled up and delivered the dagger. Game over. The series might as well be, too.
The shot was the culmination of Durant’s eventful week. He’d been thrust into the spotlight for multiple reasons, though none had much to do with his typical on-court brilliance: Durant is averaging 28.8 points per game on 57.4 percent shooting, with an astronomical 20.8 net rating, which is the highest figure among Warriors starters. In the two games in Los Angeles, he averaged 35.5 points, showcasing his dominance in the arena where he played his first playoff game, nine years ago.
“We were an 8-seed,” Durant recalled of the Thunder’s six-game series against the top-seeded Lakers during which he averaged 25 points, 7.7 rebounds, and 2.3 assists as a 21-year-old. 30-year-old Durant didn’t think that was good enough. “It was a rough one for me individually.”
A lot has changed since then. Durant has swapped teams, won two titles, and become one of the best players in the league. Now, his standards are higher, and when he doesn’t put up those numbers, it stands out. He’s not the underdog anymore, but part of the juggernaut and everything that comes with that.
On Wednesday, two days after taking only eight shots in the Warriors’ 31-point Game 2 collapse, Durant went viral, not for burner tweets or even a basketball play, but for his answer to a question about Patrick Beverley defending him. Given how he’d spurned local reporters for weeks earlier this season, his detailed answer, which was catnip for NBA nerds, certainly felt intentional.
“They’re playing a gimmick defense, which has been working, top-locking everything on the perimeter,” Durant said. “So, guys not even looking at the 3-point line, they’re just forcing guys inside the 3-point line. So for us, I got a pest Patrick Beverley who’s up underneath me, who I could definitely shoot over the top and score every time if it’s a one-on-one situation, but we’ve got a guy that’s dropping and helping and then we got another guy that’s just sitting on me waiting on me to dribble the basketball. If I put the basketball on the floor I can probably make 43 percent of my shots if I shoot ’em like that, but that’s not really going to do nothing for us for the outcome of the game because we’ve got a nice flow, everyone’s touching the rock, everyone’s shooting and scoring. I’m not going to get in the way of the game because I’m having a little back and forth with Patrick Beverley. I’m Kevin Durant. You know who I am.”
You know who I am.
We do. We know his on-court limitations (next to none), his strengths (uh, everything?), and everything that is going on around him. So does Durant, for better and worse. After proving as much in Game 3, hitting his first eight shots and finishing with 38 points in 30 minutes, Durant was asked about the technical he was assessed late in the game—a double tech on him and the Clippers’ JaMychal Green. His response was measured and considerate, much like the one on Wednesday, but different in tone.
“Hopefully they rescind that one because I don’t want somebody to think somebody is in my head,” Durant said, as if to preempt any kind of narrative that would grow out of a late-game technical that was quickly assessed. It was like he was trying to get ahead of the First Take chyron.
“How many people can stop Kevin if he don’t want to be stopped?” Draymond Green asked rhetorically after Game 3.
It’s unclear what stopping KD looks like, given all the ways he can and does affect the game. Two different people can have two completely different responses to a Durant eruption—just ask KD and his coach. After Game 3, Durant shrugged off his dominance: “Coach drew more plays up for me.” That wasn’t how Steve Kerr saw it. “Wasn’t an adjustment,” Kerr said, refuting his own player’s sentiment. “He had a different mind-set than he had the other night.” Watching the Warriors play in person, the disconnect between box score and eye test is striking. It’s like Durant is shrouded by a cloak of invisibility that can only be taken off when he hits eight shots in a row, or nails a game-winner. We’ve become numb to anything less. By game’s end, the 28 points on 16 shots, give or take, six rebounds, and six assists from Durant will be there, as reliable as the sun rising and setting every day—plus, a whole lot of defensive plays that largely go unaccounted for.
Reliability is essential, but it’s also boring. In Game 3, the attention was on Durant and the Warriors’ response following their loss, which imbued a typically brilliant KD performance with narrative intrigue; for once, his numbers weren’t taken for granted, but taken as a symbol. By Game 4, his 33 points were back to feeling normal.
To Andrew Bogut, it isn’t “normal,” at least not yet. “He’s amazing,” Bogut said when I asked what it was like to watch Durant work. Bogut, who played four years in Golden State in the pre-Durant era, signed with the team for the postseason stretch in March. “He can get his shot off against anybody. He can get it off against guys like me, that have length, and guys that are small like Beverley. He’s seen thousands of different looks defensively, guys hold him, grab him, and he’s one of the most gifted basketball players I’ve been around. To have the skill set that he has, at that length, you probably won’t see that again.”
One of the sideshows that contributed to the rise of Steph Curry’s legend, as he went from great shooter to superstar, was his pregame warm-up routine. Fans around the world file into their seats early to see it in person. Curry still does this routine before every game, and it has not lost its luster. Curry pirouettes into the lane and skies jumpers just for the sake of seeing how high a parabola he can achieve before the ball swishes in. He moves back toward the logo and pulls up with ease, each jumper looking video-game perfect. The entire thing is magnetic.
There’s a moment toward the end of Curry’s sequence that gets even loopier. When the Warriors played in L.A. earlier this season, Curry headed the ball up like a soccer player, spun around, and shot and made a 3. More recently, he was seen practicing a fake golf shot before putting one up and heading into the locker room. On Sunday, he caught a pass from shooting coach Bruce Fraser, did a salsa dance in the corner, and then swished a fadeaway 3. It’s typically at this moment, or soon thereafter, that Durant steps onto the court to ready himself for his own warm-up.
Curry turns warm-ups into a creative outlet; Durant, on the other hand, warms up like he’s sitting at a desk, drawing perfect circles with a protractor. There are no flashy finishes, just midrange jumper after midrange jumper, which Durant sinks in silence. Curry’s routine is an all-new episode of a TV show that demands appointment viewing; Durant’s is a reliable sitcom rerun played in the background.
Durant’s routine isn’t without its quirks. He’ll take one-legged free throws, bending each of his knees and balancing himself before skying it in. He then jumps side to side on one foot before shooting, and even throws in a couple of one-footed 360-spins before a few shots at the end. But he’s not trying to put on a show; this is an awkward person intentionally putting himself in awkward positions to work on his footwork, ensuring that any shot, no matter how tough, is makeable. Unlike Curry’s smooth jaunts, Durant’s absurd length makes these unorthodox movements look slightly disjointed, but the ball still goes through the hoop the same way. Even in a meaningless warm-up, an aesthetically pleasing process isn’t more valuable than results.
That’s the narrative that Durant has been fighting since he joined Golden State: that nothing he does can ever escape the shadow of Curry. But for as much as one can look with wondrous eyes at what Curry does and the value he brings to the Warriors’ system, Durant’s reliability, however muted it may be, is crucial to the Warriors’ championship run. There’s a reason he has two NBA Finals MVPs in two seasons.
Whether it’s a polarizing matchup with Beverley or a high-profile one with LeBron, Durant’s game almost needs stakes in order to stand out. Come June, or even come the second round against Houston, his quiet greatness will take center stage once again, maybe for the last time as a member of the only team in NBA history where MVP numbers don’t always get you MVP recognition.